Learning from avoidable failures

In recent years there has been no shortage of embarrassment within the higher reaches of American journalism as stories reported as fact, or original opinion, have been retracted after they turned out to be speculative – Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction – plagiarized, or complete fictions, as was the case with more than one writer at The New Republic and with Jayson Blair at The New York Times.

Last November Rolling Stone magazine published a sensational story about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia. It quickly went viral and, with more than 2.5 million page views, became the magazine’s most-read piece of journalism that was not about a celebrity. When Rolling Stone retracted the story three weeks later, it bravely asked the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism to investigate the causes of its failure. The resulting analysis, which has been published in its entirety on the Rolling Stone website is a remarkable study of “a failure of journalism” and its conclusions speak to the pressures, challenges and responsibilities of journalists all over the world.

Although Rolling Stone’s full-time editorial staff has shrunk by a quarter since the financial crisis of 2008, it has consistently published some of the most compelling longform journalism in America. The Columbia report concludes that the magazine’s misreporting was not “not due to a lack of resources” but to a failure of methodology, most importantly the editorial staff’s willing suspension of scepticism, journalism’s most useful safeguard against error. Once the reporter and editors had bought into the story, they avoided pressing the source for too many clarifications lest it stir up traumatic memories or upset her to the point at which she might withdraw from the increasingly expensive and time-consuming project.

According to the Columbia report: Sabrina Erdely, the Rolling Stone writer, worried that if she “worked round” her source by seeking too much independent verification of details in the story, she might “drive her from the process.” However, failing to do so, prevented Erdely from uncovering information that would likely have led her to dismiss the source as unreliable. Commenting on this oversight the report states that it “reaffirms a truism of reporting: Checking derogatory information with subjects is a matter of fairness, but it can also produce surprising new facts.” Erdely also repeatedly sought comments from people who could have investigated and refuted significant details, but were unable to do so since she provided only brief summaries of the alleged incident.

With hindsight it is easy to see how foolish Rolling Stone was to effectively stake its reputation on a single source, but in real life the dozens of decisions that go into a mistake like this are complex and can only be avoided when journalists and editors admit their mistakes candidly, and try to learn from them. Will Dana, the magazine’s managing editor since 1996, noted that Rolling Stone’s errors revealed an “individual failure” and “procedural failure, an institutional failure … Every single person at every level of this thing had opportunities to pull the strings a little harder, to question things a little more deeply, and that was not done.”

Investigative journalism has never been more widely read, or important, than it is today. Despite major challenges in adapting to the digital economy newspapers and magazines today offer the average reader unprecedented access to incisive and revealing journalism about politics, war, crime, slums, guns, surveillance, as well as a range of other, less depressing subjects. Without journalists to distil the welter of information published daily by governments, corporations and scores of other institutions, each with agendas that only partly overlap with the public interest, it would be very difficult to make much sense of our world.

The failure of a leading magazine to accurately report the facts in a sensational story — one, moreover, with far-reaching social and political ramifications — is a reminder of how easily well-intentioned journalism can go astray. However, the magazine’s decision to seek out and publish a post-mortem of this failure is evidence that the higher echelons of the profession are still staffed by conscientious individuals who grasp the importance of what they do, and are willing to confront their personal and institutional shortcomings in order to discharge their responsibility to fairness and truth.

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